In the 1980’s, after graduating with a degree in Library Science from the University of Alberta, Arthur M. Smith began compiling a bibliography of the works of Will R. Bird. It appeared in 1985, and is a staggering work of academic research. I’ve been pouring over it during the last few months, marveling at just how difficult an undertaking it would have been in a pre-internet age; there are over 500 articles, short stories, and novels. Five-Hundred! And Bird published everywhere: from The Maritime Advocate to The Ypres Times to Sweetheart Stories. Smith is now head of the Library & Archives at the Royal Ontario Museum; his Will R. Bird bibliography can be viewed on the website of Mount Allison University Library here.
There are some real gems in Smith’s bibliography for the Great War literary enthusiast. One of the more intriguing (not to mention obscure) of Bird’s WWI short stories appeared in Reveille, a magazine published since 1927 by the Returned and Services League of Australia –basically the down-under equivalent of the Royal Canadian Legion. I got in touch with Lee-Anne Gwynne at the Australian War Memorial, who very graciously scanned me a copy of Bird’s The Kaiser’s Birthday, from the May 1st, 1934 issue.
The Kaiser’s Birthday is a more serious, more literary story than some of the adventurous romps Bird wrote for pulps during this period. Set on the 27th of January, 1918 (we’re told “four winters” have past), we’re introduced to Otto Kettner, an exhausted private in the German army, starving, miserably cold, and most objectionably, ohne zigaretten. A comrade in the front line sarcastically informs Kettner of the latest news from Berlin: to celebrate the Kaiser’s birthday, “there will be an Iron Cross and special leave for the man who gets a prisoner to-day” (18). Kettner and another private are sent to use a crater just forward of their fog-shrouded trench as an improvised listening post; almost immediately Kettner’s pal is killed by random enemy fire, leaving him literally alone in the fog of war. Kettner heads towards the enemy lines, presumably with the intention of getting the Kaiser’s reward, but in his weakened state is overwhelmed by the smell of good English tobacco wafting from a nearby cellar. One clumsy movement, he’s taken prisoner and then collapses from exhaustion & starvation.
When he regained consciousness the neck of a metal water bottle was pressed to his lips. He swallowed and the fiery liquor gave him strength to sit up. He gazed around stupidly, saw that he was on a seat of sandbags and old blankets. He had another drink and the potent rum made him strangle. Then he coughed. One of the solders immediately handed him a cigarette. They were watching him in a mildly curious way and talking in an undertone that sounded sympathetic. His wonder increased as he saw the badge on their collars. It was the maple leaf. His captors were those blood-thirsty Canadians (29).
All ends well for Kettner, and he’s amazed at how well-fed and supplied these Canadians are, after the propaganda he’s heard about France starving and London bombed to ashes by Zeppelin attacks, etc. In an acknowledgment of their kindness, (and a pack of cigarettes) Kettner presents one of the Canadians with his Iron Cross, second class, and the Canucks get a good chuckle from the private’s heel-clicking imitation of a high-toned German officer as he does so.
The Kaiser’s Birthday is not a bad read, and at four pages, it’s an ideal length for high-school teachers to hand out to a class. There are a lot of WWI stereotypes in this short story: most interesting among them is the pale student, temperamentally unsuited to the trenches, who shoots himself. The self-inflicted wound will be fatal; the various reactions of his comrades are notable, and I’ve flagged this story for a longer piece on suicide in the trenches in Canadian ficiton.
And so: The Kaiser’s Birthday, from the May 1st, 1934 of Reveille. Enjoy.